Dir. FW Murnau, Germany, 1922
Given it is also held up as a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema, Nosferatu couldn’t be much more different from Caligari. The first film revelled in artifice. Nosferatu is steeped in realism. The earlier film is shot on studio sets; Nosferatu is largely filmed on location. Caligari is an insane nightmare. Nosferatu, though nightmarish, has the uncanny intruding into the normal world.
It’s also practically impossible to watch this, probably the most influential of all horror movies, without spotting the roots of so much horror cinema – from the 1931 Dracula, whose best moments are frequently pointed to by Murnau, to the vampire, who holds himself like Karloff’s creature, stalking jerkily through the rooms of Castle Orlok. And Orlok’s end, dissolved into dust by the rising sun, a complete departure from Stoker’s source novel, is so powerful it’s recycled in Hammer’s original Dracula.
The picture opens with domestic bliss – Hutter gets dressed while his sweet wife Ellen plays with a kitten. But a discordant note is introduced almost immediately when Hutter’s employer, the sinister, gurning Knock reads a letter written in occult symbols. Count Orlok has invited Hutter to the ‘land of ghosts’ to negotiate a deal for property in Wisborg. Hutter is amused, but Ellen senses doom.
Hutter’s journey to Castle Orlok is the stuff of countless subsequent films: friendly peasants who turn sullen and scared when he mentions his destination; a coach driver who refuses to go an inch further. Forbidding mountains, lonely paths and crumbling bridges lead inexorably towards the heart of darkness, with a mounting sense of dread. By the time Hutter reaches the decaying castle, the joke has worn very thin.
But what he finds is truly horrific. Orlok is a genuinely uncanny creature. A hook nose, huge ears, vicious fangs and claws. Max Schreck moves oddly – as if the angular, disconcerting scenery of Caligari has been distilled into human form. Orlok is introduced in the guise of a coach driver, taking Hutter in a hearse the final miles of his journey. Orlok’s watchful, hungry eyes assessing the man. Next, he flits towards Hutter on the threshold of the castle, like a spider approaching a fly. Every time he’s glimpsed, it’s horrific – from the moment Hutter finds him watchfully waiting outside his door; when he discovers him sleeping in a crypt; when Orlok stacks his coffins for the trip to Wisborg; appears as a kind of spectral vision on the boat to Wisborg, and when he rises, impossibly, from a coffin to wipe out the boat’s crew. He remains one of the most uniquely unsettling monsters in all of horror cinema.
Orlok is a force of nature: the idea of pestilence and death personified. Where he travels, plague follows; rats swarm and death comes swiftly. He moves across Europe like a grisly shadow – in the years after the war and the flu epidemic, in a way that must have been horribly relatable to the audience. The midsection of the movie is structured as a race against time: as Orlok approaches Visborg by sea, Hutter races to meet him over land.
While the hero and villain make their way to a showdown, the film’s ineffectual Van Helsing substitute, Professor Bulwer, piles on the metaphor by teaching his students about the fly in the Venus fly trap. The implication is that vampirism exists in nature. But the metaphor is misleading, because Venus is a goddess and Orlok is the fly in her honey trap. Ellen’s the ultimate hero of the movie, sacrificing herself by letting Orlok feed on her until the cock crows and he is destroyed; his castle left in ruins and the horror finally dispersed: the kind of abrupt restoration of normality that became the stock in trade of the Universal and Hammer Draculas. But as the first and greatest of all the Dracula adaptations, and the source of so much of the iconography and rhythm of genre cinema Nosferatu stands as the early high water mark in the history of horror.